Current Brain Research Applied to Education by Columbia Pacific University

Brain Functioning and Its Implications 

A great deal has been learned in recent years about the functioning of the human brain.  Studies have ranged from microscopic manipulation of nerve cells and their parts to elaborate statistical analyses and computer simulations designed to deduce cognitive functions.

There is, to be sure, a lot we do not know.  In addition, it is often difficult to translate findings from laboratory and field research into useful practices for education in general, and the self-educating adult in particular.  Nevertheless, there are some interesting and useful ideas for this course that can be gleaned from modern neurosciences.  The following summary is excerpted and adapted from a valuable book on this subject, Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain by Renate Nummela Caine and Geoffrey Caine (Alexandria, Virginia: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991).

Current research in the neurosciences presents a challenge to some strongly held beliefs.  For example, the brain does not separate emotions from cognition, either anatomically or perceptually.  Hence, brain research challenges the belief that teaching can be separated into the cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains.  Such artificial categorization may be helpful in designing research projects, but it can actually distort our understanding of learning.  A physiological model of memory also calls into question the notion that learning must take place through rote memorization.  In addition, by understanding properties of our spatial memory system, educators can understand that teaching to behavioral objectives ignores other functions of the brain and other aspects of memory and learning.  Indeed, we have come to the conclusion that educators, by being too specific about facts to be remembered and outcomes to be produced, may prohibit students’ genuine understanding and transfer of learning.

We need to expand our notions of learning and teaching.  The brain is far from simple, and implications are always more complex than we initially perceive.  It is not so much that what we are doing in education is right or wrong; it is more a matter of seeing beyond our heavily entrenched modes of doing business.  We therefore invite educators to move beyond what Ivan Barzakov of Optimalearning calls “the fallacy of the familiar.”  This requires that in order to expand our knowledge and understanding of an issue, we avoid the tendency to reduce the new to something we already know and to practices that are familiar.  Given that learning and teaching involve multifaceted human beings in complex interactions, we have no choice but to acknowledge and comprehend this complexity and move beyond narrow definitions and practices if we are genuinely to improve education on a large scale.  This is why coming to terms with complexity, tolerating ambiguity, and accepting active uncertainty are so critical.

In many ways, the brain is like the heart or lungs.  Each organ has a natural function.  The brain learns because that is its job.  Moreover, the brain has a virtually inexhaustible capacity to learn.  Each healthy human brain, irrespective of a person’s age, sex, nationality, or cultural background, comes equipped with a set of exceptional features:

  • the ability to detect patterns and to make approximations,
  • a phenomenal capacity for various types of memory,
  • the ability to self-correct and learn from experience by way of analysis of external data and self-reflection, and
  • an inexhaustible capacity to create.

If, then, everyone has these capacities, why are we struggling in our ability to educate?  One essential reason is that we have not yet grasped the complexity and elegance of the way the brain learns, especially when it is functioning optimally.  When we understand both the possibilities and the available processes, then we can access the vast potential of the human brain and, in a very real sense, improve education.  In the words of Leslie Hart, there can be “brain-compatible” or “brain-antagonistic” education.  Understanding the difference is crucial.

Many educators, for example, have assumed that learning takes place primarily through memorization of facts and specific skills.  This is like looking at the moon and believing that we have understood the solar system.  There is more.  Almost ignored is the immense capacity of the brain to deal with and instantly remember the moment-to-moment events that constitute life experience.  Even more neglected and underused is the innate predisposition of the brain to search for how things make sense, to search for some meaning in experience.  This translates into the search for common patterns and relationships.  It is a matter of finding out how what is being learned relates to what the learner already knows and values and how information and experiences connect.  In essence we must come to terms with meaningful learning and the art of capitalizing on experience.  Although all learning is brain based in some sense, optimal brain-based learning involves acknowledging the brain’s rules for meaningful learning and organizing teaching with those rules in mind.

Currently, for example, literature, mathematics, history, and science are often seen as separate disciplines unrelated to the life of the learner.  Brain-based learning, on the other hand, rests on the fact that the various disciplines relate to each other and share common information that the brain can recognize and organize.  Similarly, various areas of life experience are commonly kept separate from education.  Yet we are discovering more and more that all factors that go into physical, mental, and social well-being affect education and, in fact, function synergistically with optimal learning experiences.

Brain research establishes and confirms that multiple complex and concrete experiences are essential for meaningful learning and teaching.  Optimizing the use of the human brain means using the brain’s infinite capacity to make connections—and understanding what conditions maximize this process.  In essence, students learn from their entire ongoing experience.  In many ways, content is inseparable from context.

Every complex event embeds information in the brain and links what is being learned to the rest of the learner’s current experiences, past knowledge, and future behavior.  The primary focus for educators, therefore, should be on expanding the quantity and quality of ways in which a learner is exposed to content and context—a kind of “immersion.”  This immersion process can be hindered or helped.  How, for example, does the family environment allow for a student to make additional connections and to be further immersed in using and exploring the information and understanding gleaned in studies?  And what of society?  To what extent does television encourage abstract and creative intellectual thought?  Which of our politicians perhaps merely call for educational reform, and which ones try to engage learners in critical thinking and reflection on the issues affecting our society?  Is the content of studies compartmentalized and separated from life?  These questions illustrate aspects of the experience in which a student is immersed.

People can and need to grasp the larger patterns.  The part is always imbedded in a whole, the fact is always embedded in multiple contexts, and a subject is always related to many other issues and subjects.  Optimizing learning and realizing the potential of the human brain depends on dealing with this interconnectedness.

The overwhelming need for learners is for meaningfulness.  It is impossible to deal with complexity and change and to make sound judgements if the tools and knowledge at our disposal do not make sense.  We do not come to understand a subject or master a skill by sticking bits of information to each other.  Understanding a subject results from perceiving relationships.  The brain is designed as a pattern detector.

The brain processes information all the time.  It digests experience to some extent in the same way that we digest food.  It is always responding to the complex global context in which it is immersed.

Among the features of brain-based learning are active uncertainty or the tolerance for ambiguity; problem solving; questioning; and patterning by drawing relationships through the use of metaphor, similes, and demonstrations.  Brain-based learning is usually experienced as joyful, although the content may be rigorous and intellectually challenging; and students experience a high degree of self-motivation.  It acknowledges and encourages the brain’s ability to integrate vast amounts of information.  It involves the entire learner in a challenging learning process that simultaneously engages the intellect, creativity, emotions, and physiology.  It allows for the unique abilities and contribution from the learner in the teacher-learner situation.  It acknowledges that learning takes place within a multiplicity of contexts—school, home, work, community, etc.  It appreciates the interpenetration of parts and wholes by connecting what is learned to the greater picture and allowing learners to investigate the parts within the wholes.  Brain-based learning is meaningful to the learner.  What is learned makes sense.

By comparing the brain to a city, we can gain a better sense of how truly complex the brain is.  Imagine a distant planet where scientists are using a powerful telescope to examine a large city on Earth.  The first things they notice are the physical structures of the city.  Further analysis of the function of these structures reveals them to be institutions like factories, banks, schools, utilities companies, and shopping centers.  They are connected by streets, rails, and wires.  The scientists notice that people are also vital elements—they are the agents that make the city and organizations “work.”  They direct the transmission of information and materials from one area to the next, and they execute essential functions.

The observers also notice that cities are divided into neighborhoods and that most people work in clusters or groups.  Specific organizations such as the telephone company employ people with special skills to perform functions related to communication.  Of course, not all people are parts of groups.  And the functions of some are hard to pin down.  Such clustering is also typical of the brain.

Now, notice all the simultaneous functions within the city.  On any given day, large numbers of groups and individuals are working at the same time.  The utilities companies are active at the same time that schools are open, and the working of the bank does not interfere with the library.  Similarly, in the brain many things are happening at one time or “in parallel.”  Different parts are monitoring hormone levels, temperature, and digestion at the same time that we may be watching the screen and typing an emotionally arousing dialogue on the computer.  Thus, the brain is regarded as a “parallel processor.”

Again, as in the brain, the centers in the city are interconnected and dependent on each other.  The bank depends on the electric company, the gas company, and the water company.  Schools require electricity, water, a sewage system, books that are printed elsewhere, products for chemical experiments, and food for the cafeteria.  In fact, it is difficult to mention any specialized group that is not also highly dependent on many others.  There is a greater degree of organization still.  Some centers handle the most critical or important functions, while other branches in the same building or in outlying areas provide support.  And in every process there are decision-making bodies, such as committees and subcommittees, with varying degrees of power and influence.  The brain also has an infinite number of possible interconnections. It is because this parallel and interrelated processing is typical of the brain, as of the city, that the brain is described as “holographic” or “global” or “interconnected.”  It is very busy.  And because every element influences every other element, an understanding of this complexity is paramount for education.

The brain has a variety of intensity and focus in its activities.  The distinction between rest and activity is actually very complex.  In the waking state, deep metabolic rest helps the brain experience a variety of different states of activity and excitement indicative of a general state of alertness.  We can be excited in different ways and to different degrees.  Technically these are called “states of arousal.”  Again, the city analogy will help.  Cities never stop everything completely, but most reduce their activity at night.  During the day, there are also different intensities and types of activity.  Some are local some are citywide.  Thus there is a period of waking up, of rush-hour traffic, of deadlines such as those for the news and stock markets, of common events such as the times of schools opening and closing.  Other activities occur around the clock, such as police patrols and service station operations.

In the same way, the brain has many states of arousal, which affect the ways the brain deals with signals and information.  These states of arousal are closely linked to what are called “states of consciousness.”

States of consciousness are not merely Eastern phenomena, nor are they experienced only by a few enlightenment-seeking souls.  A wide variety of states of consciousness are experienced frequently by everyone.  Such states include creative states, meditative states, dreaming, and rationality (which in this context means being functional and effective in the world).

States of consciousness are influenced, among other things, by our degree of physical well-being and by our emotions.  We are aroused in one way when we have a sense of urgency caused by deadlines.  We are aroused in another way when we have that sense of the “timeless now” that people have when they are deeply engrossed in a project and feel that they are “in the flow.”  Different parts of the brain may be dominant when we are in different states, but it is the brain as a whole that is functioning.

Effective learning always involves the alternation of several states of arousal.  One of the fundamental reasons that some schools fail is that they impose on learners a single state of unrelieved boredom.  The comparative importance of states of arousal can be seen in the power of entertainment and the arts.  A good movie triggers a range of states with a series of buildups and releases.  The power of great theater lies to a large extent in the way in which it uses this tension.  Intelligent orchestration in teaching includes an understanding of these states of arousal and borrows from the theater such elements as timing and the ability to create anticipation, drama, and excitement.

Let us take a moment to dispel some common myths about the brain.  Research reveals that there are anatomical differences between male and female rat brains.  There are probably some corresponding differences in the brains of men and women.  As yet, however, the differences are too tenuous and too subject to different interpretations to provide useful leads in learning and teaching matters.  Similarly, most of us have heard some ideas from left brain/right brain enthusiasts.  The most accurate statement we can make is that research on hemisphericity, at this point, is inconclusive.  There is probably something to the distinctions made between typical left-brain and right-brain functions, but they are extraordinarily simplistic because both hemispheres are involved in all activities.  For example, consider a poem, a play, a novel, or a work of philosophy.  They all involve a sense of the “wholeness” of things and a capacity to work with patterns, often in a timeless way.  In other words, the processes that are often considered primarily “left brain” are enriched and supported by those attributed to the “right brain.”  Similarly, great artists do not just set up an easel and paint; they may do a significant amount of preliminary design and analytical thinking.  That is why we have so many sketches from, say, Picasso and da Vinci, before the final product was painted.  The artistic process involves a substantial amount of analytical and segmented thinking.  In other words, the “right side” of the brain also relies on the left for success.

We must realize that intuition, wholistic images, and synthesis over time, which are supposedly right-hemisphere functions, are within everyone’s grasp.  At the same time, analytic detail, verbal expression, and the ability to articulate, as well as engagement in critical and logical thinking, which are supposedly left-hemisphere functions, can all add a wealth of richness to our lives.  All learning should provide opportunities to develop all kinds of abilities even as we may continue to prefer some activities and interests over others.

As a result of brain research, we begin to understand that parts and wholes always interact.  Arthur Koestler coined the word “holon,” which means that everything is a part of something bigger and is itself made up of parts.  The arm is part of a human being, which is part of a family, a community, a city, a state, and a country.  Parts of the arm are skin, cells, blood, oxygen, molecules, and so forth.

The brain has an enormous capacity to deal with parts and wholes simultaneously.  The brain can deal with the interconnected, interpenetrating, “holographic” world, provided it is encouraged to do so.  One common thrust of many new methods of teaching is that they have this sense of the wholeness that emerges out of seeing how academic subjects relate to each other and how human beings relate to the subjects.  In effect, such approaches orchestrate complex experience in a way that takes advantage of what the brain does well.

By grasping the interconnectedness of so many facets of our being, we appreciate how much learning is a product of everything that we are.  Physical health is important.  So is emotional health.  Experiences actually shape our brains and therefore shape future learning.  Relaxation and stress play a part, as do the ways we communicate and our sensory preferences.  The brain’s capacity to learn is vast.  The brain is constructed for much more demanding intellectual activity than it usually experiences.  We use the brain better when we enrich our experiences so that our brains can extract new and more complex ways of communicating and interacting with the world.

Principles of Brain-Based Learning 

The following is also excerpted and adapted from Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain.

(1) The brain is a parallel processor.  It is always doing many things at one time.  Thoughts, emotions, imagination, and predispositions operate simultaneously and interact with other modes of information processing and with the expansion of general social and cultural knowledge.  Good teaching and learning therefore orchestrate many varied experiences and provide a rich context for the educational processes.

(2) Learning engages the entire physiology. Everything that affects our physiological functioning affects our capacity to learn.  Stress management, nutrition, exercise, and relaxation, as well as other facets of health management must be fully incorporated into the learning process.

(3) The search for meaning is innate.  The search for meaning (making sense of our experiences) and the consequential need to act on our environment are automatic.  The search for meaning is survival oriented and basic to the human brain.  The brain needs and automatically registers the familiar while simultaneously searching for and responding to novel stimuli.  This dual process is taking place constantly.  The search for meaning cannot be stopped, only channelled and focused.  The learning environment therefore needs to provide stability and familiarity but, at the same time, provision must be made to satisfy our curiosity and hunger for novelty, discovery, and challenge.  Lessons need to be generally exciting and meaningful and offer an abundance of choices.  The more positively lifelike such learning, the better.

(4) The search for meaning occurs through “patterning.”  Patterning refers to the meaningful organization and categorization of information.  In a way, the brain is both artist and scientist, attempting to discern and understand patterns as they occur and giving expression to unique and creative patterns of its own.  The brain is designed to perceive and generate patterns, and it resists having meaningless patterns imposed on it.  “Meaningless” patterns are isolated pieces of information unrelated to what makes sense to a student.  When the brain’s natural capacity to integrate information is acknowledged and invoked in teaching/learning, then vast amounts of initially unrelated or seemingly random information and activities can be presented and assimilated.  Learners are patterning, or perceiving and creating meanings, all the time in one way or another.  Even daydreaming is a way of patterning, as are, of course, problem solving and critical thinking.  For teaching/learning to be really effective, a learner must be able to create meaningful and personally relevant patterns.

(5) Emotions are critical to patterning.  We do not simply learn things.  What we learn is influenced and organized by emotions and mind sets based on expectancy, personal biases and prejudices, degree of self-esteem, and the need for social interaction.  Emotions and cognition cannot be separated.  Emotions are also crucial to memory because they facilitate the storage and recall of information.  Moreover, many emotions cannot simply be switched on and off.  They operate on many levels, somewhat like the weather.  They are ongoing, and the emotional impact of any lesson or life experience may continue to reverberate long after the specific event.  Learning experiences should, therefore, involve the student’s entire internal and external environment.  In general, the social milieu should be supportive, encouraging, and mutually respectful of everyone concerned.

(6) The brain processes parts and wholes simultaneously.  Although there is some experimental evidence of brain laterality, meaning that there are significant differences between left and right hemispheres of the brain, in a healthy person the two hemispheres are inextricable interactive, whether a person is dealing with words, mathematics, music, or art.  The “two brain” doctrine is most valuable as a metaphor that helps educators acknowledge two separate but simultaneous tendencies in the brain for organizing information.  One is to reduce information into parts; the other is to perceive and work with it as a whole or series of wholes.  People have enormous difficulty in learning when either parts or wholes are overlooked.  Good learning experiences build understanding and skills over time because learning is cumulative and developmental.  However, parts and wholes are conceptually interactive.  They derive meaning from and give it to each other.

(7) Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception.  The brain absorbs information of which we are directly aware and to which we are paying attention.  It also directly absorbs information and signals that lie beyond the field of attention.  These may be stimuli that one perceives “out of the side of the eyes,” such as the walls of the room in which we are sitting.  Peripheral stimuli also include the “light” or subtle signals that are within the field of attention but are still not consciously noticed (such as the hint of a smile or slight changes in body posture).  This means that the brain responds to the entire sensory context in which teaching or communication occurs.  Every stimulus is coded, associated, and symbolized.  Thus every sound, from a word to a siren, and every visual signal, from a blank screen to a raised finger, is packed full of complex meanings.  Therefore, every aspect of the learning environment should be considered potentially important or at least contributory to the educational experience.  Background music may be distracting or it may facilitate relaxed focus of attention.  Distracting noises and activities near the learning environment should be thought about consciously to consider whether they are contributing to or distracting from the learning situation.  It may also be useful to arrange shifts in background and in study techniques to produce a richer and more varied input flow for the brain’s synthesis.  In broader terms, every aspect of the student’s life including community, family, and technological factors, affects student learning.

(8) Learning always involves both conscious and unconscious processes.  We learn much more than we ever consciously understand.  Beneath the surface of awareness, an enormous amount of unconscious processing is going on.  Teaching therefore needs to be designed in such a way as to help students benefit maximally from unconscious processing.  In part this is done by addressing the peripheral context (as described above).  It is also done by encouraging “active processing” of material that is studied.  This means in addition to reading, thinking about, discussing (perhaps orally or perhaps in writing), and answering questions about the material.  It also means finding relevant links between what is being studied and the student’s broader life situation and interests.

(9) We have at least two different types of memory: a spatial memory system and a set of systems for rote learning.  We have a natural, spatial memory system that does not need rehearsal and allows for instant memory of experiences.  Remembering where and what we had for dinner last night does not require the use of memorization techniques.  We have at least one memory system actually designed for registering our experience in ordinary three-dimensional space.  The system is always engaged and is inexhaustible.  It is possessed by people of both sexes and all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds.  It is enriched over time as we increase the items, categories, and procedures that we take for granted.  Thus there was a time when we did not know what a tree or a television was.  The system is motivated by novelty.  In fact, this is one of the systems that drives the search for meaning mentioned previously.

On the other hand, facts and skills that are dealt with in isolation are organized differently by the brain and need much more practice and rehearsal.  The counterpart of the spatial memory system is a set of systems specifically designed for storing relatively unrelated information.  Nonsense syllables are an extreme case.  The more separated information and skills are from prior knowledge and actual experience, the more dependence there needs to be on rote memory and repetition.  We can compare this memory system to the inventory of an automobile shop.  The more items are available, the more the shop can repair, build, and even design cars.  It can also do so with greater ease and speed and less stress.  At the same time, if management becomes too enamored of the stocking of inventory, and mechanics and designers fail to see how to use the materials available, then an imbalance has been created.  In the same way, emphasizing the storage and recall of unconnected facts is an inefficient use of the brain.  Education should, therefore, emphasize context of information, connections between and among items of information, and relationships with the broader world of the student.

(10) We understand and remember best when facts and skills are embedded in natural, spatial memory.  For example, our native language is learned through multiple interactive experiences involving vocabulary and grammar.  It is shaped both by internal processes and by social interactions.  That is an example of how specific “items” are given meaning when embedded in ordinary experiences.  All education can be enhanced when this type of embedding is adopted.  Success in education depends on using all of the senses and immersing the learner in a multitude of complex and interactive experiences.  Data and analysis are important, but they should be embedded in a broader context of multimodal life experiences.

(11) Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.  The brain downshifts under perceived threat and learns optimally when appropriately challenged.  The central feature of “downshifting” is a sense of helplessness.  It is accompanied by a narrowing of the perceptual field.  The learner becomes less flexible and reverts to automatic and often more primitive routine behaviors.  Learning can best take place in an atmosphere of relaxed alertness with an atmosphere that is low in threat but high in challenge.

(12) Each brain is unique.  Although we all have the same set of systems, including our senses and basic emotions, they are integrated differently in every brain.  In addition, because learning actually changes the structure of the brain, the more we learn, the more unique we become.  Teaching should therefore be multifaceted to allow students to express visual, tactile, emotional, and auditory preferences.  There are other individual differences that also need to be considered.  These are considered in more detail further on in this course in sections on competencies, study skills, and learning styles.